Airlines expect our patience and understanding, where’s the reciprocity?


It’s been a tough winter already for airline travelers across the U.S., as various storms have forced the delay or cancellation of thousands of flights.

Then, even when the weather improves, there’s the backlog of planes and crew being in the wrong place, having flown too many hours or whatever, which can result in further delays or cancellations.

In addition, anyone who flies frequently can add stories to the list. Flights can be affected if the crew is ill, gets caught in traffic or oversleeps. And then there are the issues with catering, baggage, mechanical problems, broken jetways.

Just for an example, a friend who had booked with US Airways from Richmond to Nashville last week to arrive Friday at 1 p.m. with a Sunday afternoon return, ended up landing 8 hours late Friday night, and being stuck in Nashville Sunday night. No major storms were involved. And, there was no airline compensation either.

My own most recent flight was delayed because the airline forgot to board a dog. (No joke, not only did the pilot say it, you could see the little van drive up, the cargo door reopened, and the kennel put on the ramp into the plane.)

Fair enough, stuff happens. Unless it happens to passengers. Then with most legacy carriers it’s a $200 change fee, plus, what can be a significant fare difference. Even sometimes when the booked flight is sold out and the new flight is wide open.

The airlines’ usual response — “Buy insurance.”

I certainly understand how a last minute change might mean that an airline couldn’t resell the seat. Although more often than not when I travel, flights are full with standby lists and increasingly I get the announcement, “One of your flights may be overbooked, would you be willing to accept a $150 travel voucher to take a later flight?”

In many cases, travelers know well in advance that the dates need adjusting — children’s school or sports activities, an important event that comes up after ticket purchase and other family issues. These and other things often mean changing tickets months in advance and certainly weeks.

Now, I know that passengers exacerbated this problem themselves, when in days past it was an open joke that any doctor’s note would get you out of a penalty, even if it was from a dentist or a psychologist.

But, that could be easily fixed by requiring something more substantial — a bill, a prescription, even a hospitalization certificate. Or, for that matter, some other documentation of a real problem. Then, airlines could refund the change fees after the fact, once the information was mailed or scanned or faxed in to the carrier.

Perhaps the legacy carriers could put a small service charge for medical and emergency waivers to cover costs. I realize that airlines are in business to make money (in theory, even if you wouldn’t always know it from their pricing decisions).

I’m not enough of a dreamer to really expect anything to change. But, does anyone else think the current system, where travelers put up with whatever airlines do to them as far as delays and cancellations, while getting nothing in return, is just a bit ridiculous?

  • 3.14lot

    As a fellow traveller, I certainly sympathize with you. As an airline pilot though, i see the complexities of accomplishing air travelling with safety as the primary priority. We are so consistently safe in north america (despite every bit of challenging weather imaginable), that it is assumed. Not always, but a lot of the time, a delayed takeoff or landing stems from a decision to keep you safe.
    Safety. Comfort. On time performance.
    Rearrange at your peril.
    To all the passengers that understand this, and see air travel for what it truely is, your air crew thanks you.

  • janice hough

    Hey, I completely understand why airlines need to cancel and delay flights. And appreciate the stress and safety factor. It’s just frustrating to me as a travel agent that the change fees we have to charge are so high when a passenger themselves has a good reason to change a flight.

  • AirlineEmployee

    The (fairly acceptable) $75 is the going rate for SAME DAY change which is generally waived if a person is missing a flight by two hours or less (obviously they showed up and made every effort to make it or they were on a very late inbound causing them to miss a connection).
    However, a $200 (different) date change fee is way too excessive in my opinion. I hate having to charge people this fee especially if it’s a family of 3 or 4. Awful. All I can do is apologize.

  • BobChi

    The airlines just don’t have a “department for investigating sad stories” to determine whether excuses are legitimate or not; it would be expensive to set one up; and how hard would it be to get a fake doctor’s note these days? Basically I know that if I book a non-refundable ticket I’m going to eat it (or maybe have some residual value) if something comes up and I can’t make the flight. The better price is worth it to me to take that chance, and indeed I can buy insurance if it’s a really expensive trip.
    And the idea of their reselling a seat is flawed, because it is of no use unless it is exactly the last seat and there is actually a buyer. They have run the numbers and find that collecting change fees is much more profitable. I personally paid a $75 change fee very happily yesterday when it got me to my destination 6 hours earlier than expected.

  • mike313

    What we urgently need in the United States is the adoption of the European Union’s scheme to compensate passengers. No ‘ands’, ‘if’ or ‘buts’ – especially as US airlines flying to/from Europe already manage to live within the constraints imposed by the EU regulations for passenger compensation for flight delays. In fact the compensation claims are widely advertised to passengers in large type posters in most EU international airport (Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, etc.) – another move we need to start for existing rights of US passengers, however minimal they are.

  • Frank

    Some things I just don’t understand. I got to the Atlanta airport early one time returning to the West coast. I asked about getting on the earlier flight (which they told me was wide open) and they said, sure, for a change fee. I don’t remember how much, but it was well over a hundred bucks.

  • BobChi

    They wanted to make well over a hundred bucks.

  • MeanMeosh

    Poop happens, and I think most people understand that as long as the airlines do what they can to get them home as soon as possible, safely. However, what bothers me is that the airlines seem to have taken the position that cancellations due to circumstances beyond their control, no matter how long it takes to get the passenger home, mean they can leave people hanging with no help at all. It’s one thing if someone is delayed for a few hours, or perhaps even overnight. But during the New Year’s storm, some people were left stranded for 5 days or more, and because it was caused by “weather”, were stuck where they were with no compensation at all. That’s just not reasonable if you ask me. There should be a provision where airlines are at least required to provide food and water to weather or ATC-delayed passengers if the delay stretches more than 24 hours.

  • StephenD

    Ah yes … the airlines … accountable for nothing and charging for everything. My favorite scenario is where there is a storm on the east coast, flight crews are delayed, the airline does not maintain enough staff for contingency purposes needed on connecting flights, those connecting flights are delayed or cancelled and, yet, they are not accountable as the “original” issue was weather related. Charge for everything … accountable for nothing. They charge outrageous baggage fees yet NOT accountable for baggage arriving (on time or period). While other industries (excepting maybe cable companies) thrive on competition as a means to improve products, services, and profits, airlines thrive on fees and consolidation to restrict competition, products and services … all the while increasing profits.

  • dcta

    So, I just want to put this out there – it’s not entirely related to the original post, but….

    The employees of USAir and American and Delta and United and JetBlue have worked liked dogs all this winter, not to mention this Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. They have done what they could and in some cases, have done more than they should and may face consequences for that. Unfortunately, in some cases, they did not understand the rules and exactly what they are empowered to do, greatly disappointing many consumers. Overall, such cases were few and far between when we recognize that over 75,000 flights were cancelled so far this winter.

    From the Travel Agent’s point of view – this has been a frustrating two months, with much time spent on hold and clients in limbo. but overall, those Res Agents have been there for us (when we finally get one) and have been helpful. Those men and women on the other end of the line can’t stop the snow and can’t get a runway cleared and can’t ensure that de-icing is working – they can only talk to you and try to assist. By today, they are exhausted.

    It’s those people, not some great big abstract “airline” who are asking for our patience and understanding. Sadly, many of them are treated with great disrespect, anger and aggression at the airport and on the phone when in a weather emergency like this.

    I’d like to just say, “thanks” – thanks for trying to help us all out when you can.

  • Phil Vee

    The airlines will screw you anytime they can. There is no justification for change fees if the carrier can resell the seat. The airlines are just trying to get as much as they can squeeze out of you and will use any trick and trap to do it. Fees, fees and more fees seems to be their business plan. Why can’t they compete by providing value and service. Capitalism is supposed to improve the system. The process is not working with the airlines, medical industry and many others. The lawmakers are paid off to make laws to screw the people.